My Peace Corner

In many AMS Montessori classrooms you’ll find a Peace Corner.  There might be a mini Japanese rock garden or a peace rose.  My last year at Pathfinder I had a very small group of 4-8th grade girls- two of whom had a history of strongly disliking each other.  It was a potentially toxic mix.  I tried to think of various ways I could build a positive group identity and let them express themselves as well.  One of the things I came up with was our Peace Wall.  I invited them to bring in photos to personalize this wall with images that might have  significance to them, or ground them if they felt stressed.  Naturally, I had a picture of Atlas on it. Simply looking at a picture of Atlas calmed me down.  Of course, being with him was the best medicine.  The girls were a bit upset with me and wondered why I didn’t have a picture of Halley too.  The answer was simple, if seemingly brutal- Halley never earned a spot.  She was not, and is not, a source of peace in my life.  In fact, she is the opposite frequently.  It is extremely stressful to walk a dog with dog-on-dog aggression issues.  Though I’ve never measured it, I would not at all be surprised to find my blood pressure goes up a solid 20 points every time I walk her.  Halley can be a sweet dog inside, and it’s not that I don’t really value her most of the time, but it will never been the same as it was with Atlas.

I’ve lost a major source of what made me feel peaceful, and have not yet figured out how to regain it.


Snow, Sadness, and Smiles

We had an awful snowstorm the day I decided to put Atlas down. The vet’s office was closing early because it was the day before Thanksgiving. I knew everyone working there was eager to get on the road because travel was already treacherous and getting worse by the minute. Alaya and Wayne rushed to make it before they closed so they could say their good-byes.

While we waited, I took Atlas on our last walk. He always loved the snow, and though it complicated some of the decision-making that took place, at that moment it was welcome. Atlas was happy.  He got to walk in the snow. Then while he was surrounded by the three people he loved, he went to sleep forever. While I never wanted to say good-bye, it was about as peaceful of a death as I could hope for.

The next morning, on Thanksgiving Day, I went for a walk to be alone with my thoughts, and I’ll always remember there was a strangely beautiful snow phenomenon. Snow crystals shaped like feathers had formed everywhere. Some were almost two inches in length. I’m sure that seemingly random detail will always be etched in my memory. Just as I’m sure seeing snow fall will always fill me with a bittersweet sense. I have so many happy memories of Atlas romping in it. It was my favorite time to walk in the woods with him. Yet I’ll always wish he could still be beside me enjoying it too.

A few days after the Thanksgiving storm, it warmed up again and I was livid. I could not bear the thought of the world seeming happy and alive. How dare the sun shine brightly. How dare the stupid birds sing like it was spring. It was a metaphysical slap in the face. Thankfully it was short-lived.

Winter came back with a vengeance. And I needed it. While others grumbled, ready for the snow to be gone, I was silently grateful. I needed time to mourn. Now in the interest of full disclosure, I am not the one who has to deal with moving the snow around in our household, but I still had to deal with walking Halley on leash when she had to go out. And I still had to clean off the car and freeze while I drove to work with a broken heater. Still, I welcomed winter.

Today, however, is the first day of spring. I’m glad we have had four solid months of winter because at least now I don’t feel I’ll go into a murderous rage if I see green grass or flowers. At the same time, I won’t mind if we have two more months of snow. While I’ve needed time, I don’t know that I can say I’m healing. I do know I still haven’t figured out how to stop missing Atlas so acutely. I recently read a comment about how Liam Neeson said six years later he still sometimes expects his wife to come through the door. I get it. At the same time, that revelation terrifies me. I guess a lot of people face the same dilemma. We go through our days. We can still laugh and smile even, but forevermore something will be missing. I don’t know that I’ll ever figure out how to stop missing Atlas.

The Irrationality of Grief: half-formed thoughts

I always considered myself logical. I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but rather that there is a scientific explanation for everything, even if we do not understand it. So I have found myself surprised by how persistent my irrationality has been regarding Atlas’s death. Even three months later, my mind, or rather my heart, cannot fully accept this loss.

I know he is dead.  I know that is a permanent state. I know I will never again see or touch him, but it doesn’t stop me from having this crazy hope that I will.

While walking down the path along the power line, I have a desperate desire to see his black form running toward me with absolute abandon. I so loved watching him put on those impressive bursts of speed. Now I can only see a fuzzy ghost of him doing that. I see his shadow everywhere.  It’s not enough.

I can’t tear myself away from the internet, even though I know I’m searching for answers and resolutions that don’t exist. He won’t be found in a search engine.  He hasn’t been reincarnated.  But wandering the corners of the earth in search of him seems easier than looking through the kitchen window and facing the now empty backyard or waking up each morning without his greeting.

I find myself wishing I were more artistic. That way I could paint his form continuously, or better yet, create a comic strip to let Atlas live on in some happy way. In the end, it wouldn’t be enough.  It doesn’t matter how far I walk, or how long I sleep, or how much I write.  He is not coming back.

I still see the beauty in snow.  I still enjoy hearing birds sing.  I still appreciate the taste of chocolate.  But I understand why people say they’d sell their soul for a moment with a departed loved one.  It is so painful, so incredibly, unbearably painful, to have them ripped away forever.

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The Other Dog

I do have another dog. She’s a great Pyrenees mix named Halley.

Her name was the one she came with. The story was that whoever named her once heard Halley’s comet described as a dirty snowball. Yep, that’s what she looked like as a pup, though as she has aged her coat has became more spotted and apricot in color. Though that is her official name, we sometimes call her “devil dog/angel dog” or “Queen Sheba” or often just “Oh, Halley” or “Poor Halley.” You see, there’s guilt involved when it comes to Halley.

I know that you are not supposed to play favorites.  But it was undeniably clear to anyone outside of our family that Atlas was the favorite, and not just by a little bit.  All three of us admitted it.

There was just something special about Atlas. They say Berners are somewhat aloof with strangers, but with us he was pure love and personality.  He could be vocal in memorable ways. He had several different whimpers: The “I see a dog I want to play with” whimper; The desperate “How could you leave me at the vet all day?” whimper. And luckily I didn’t hear this one often, but the “I need help” whimper. I had always blamed Halley for all the noise in our house because she tends to bark at dogs and people who pass our windows. I never realized how much noise Atlas made until he was gone.  The silence is still painful.

But there I go again focusing on Atlas when this is supposed to be about Halley.  In the name of full disclosure, it was always “all about Atlas.” The reason we got Halley in the first place was as a playmate for him.  That was a mistake, as we soon realized Atlas would have clearly preferred life without Halley. She definitely cramped his style. She could be a real…well, bitch.

I don’t know if it was out of jealousy or just because she was a stinker, but Atlas could not have anything without Halley desperately wanting it.  I’d buy identical treats or toys.  It didn’t matter. She was more interested in making sure she got what Atlas had. Because it got tricky walking two large dogs with different needs, I decided to try giving them individual attention. I would walk her alone first, because she had to be first. But then I’d try to walk Atlas and she would be an inconsolable wreck in the house. Of course, I was gone, but she drove Wayne nuts.

As the owner, I need to take responsibility here, because truth be told, it’s rarely ever a dog’s fault. Even as a puppy I saw the signs. I would perhaps inappropriately joke that she had “Asperger for Dogs.” She just didn’t seem to get their social cues. Most dogs know to approach another dog by circling around and sniffing the backside. She always went for the face. I’d try to steer her away. I hoped she’d learn from Atlas’s excellent example, but she stubbornly insisted. Most dogs were generous enough to let her get away with it, but a few let her know they were not at all okay with her rudeness, and it was as you can imagine a nightmare. I knew the problem was getting worse by the time she was 1.5-2 years old. I needed help training-wise. Unfortunately, this was exactly when our financial situation changed making private training out of the question.

So now my outdoor life with Halley revolves around a constant threat of MUD (Meeting the Unleashed Dog). They are everywhere! And I swear, Halley must give off some kind of vibe to attract them too. My solution has been to take defensive measures: I carry pepper spray. I walk her in rain and snow storms or at odd hours. Thankfully, near our current house there is a path along the power lines where others rarely go. Except for too many ticks, and my ever present fear of a rabid beaver attack, it has been a lifesaver.

To be fair, Halley does have many redeeming qualities. She’s lovely for one. With her long eyelashes, velvety soft muzzle, full white flag of a tail, and soft brown eyes, she often looks angelic. She can also sit in such a quiet, patient way. Even though she doesn’t love dogs, she does love people and is very sweet and gentle with children. Because of this, the students at our old school loved her over Atlas. That made me feel a bit less guilty. She has also been very healthy. Something I do not take for granted. Basically, Halley is happy to be loved and go for daily walks. I’d love to enjoy those more with her, we just need to solve the dog aggression issue.

And now that Atlas is gone, it’s really about time I do right by Halley. I’m trying despite my broken heart.

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My Best Decision

$1500 for a puppy.  It was a crazy indulgence for me, someone who had always been frugal, especially when it came to buying something for myself. As morbid as it was, at the time, I also calculated how much it would be per year for this dog depending on how long he lived. Ridiculous now I know, because the value Atlas brought to my life on a daily basis was utterly priceless.

And then came the first scare.  I picked him up Friday after school on September 15, 2006. On Sunday night we spent the entire night in the emergency vet.  He was bleeding when he went to the bathroom.  I remember that as the vet told me he wasn’t sure if he’d live, I was utterly shocked to realize I was devastated. It wasn’t about the money. I already loved this puppy. How could I possibly love this particular puppy after only three days?  But I did.

And during the almost 8 1/2 years we had together, the 3,000 plus walks, the 6,000 plus feedings, the far too many vet visits, the tens of thousands of times I pet his amazingly soft fur and the truly countless times he made me smile, that love only grew.

He wasn’t perfect.

He’d mess with me in particular, wanting to play instead of coming in when I had to go to work.  And there were the couple of times he found bones in the woods while on our walks; all hope of obedience was lost. In one story Wayne likes to retell he walked out the door to the crazy scene of Atlas mischievously bolting away from me while I was yelling behind him desperately to “Drop it!”  Luckily, he ran straight to Wayne where he proceeded to vomit up half of a deer’s leg right at Wayne’s feet.  It seemed an impossible size for a dog to have swallowed whole. But Atlas always loved his food. Admittedly even more than he did us.

He also loved to go into water that would invariably make him sick. And though he was generally good at the “leave it” command, he would purposely wait for a moment when I was distracted to sneak a quick plunge.  It was hard not to delight in those romping happy dog moments, but unfortunately we so often had to pay a price for it, that we had to have him on leash more and more.

So often I second guess myself.  So often I doubt. But I’ll never regret my decision to buy Atlas. He may not have been perfect, but he was perfect for me.


Still Grasping

He’s gone.  I will never see him again. I will never hear him again. I will never feel him again. He is gone from this earth.  I am trying desperately to wrap my head around this new reality, but it is still too painful to grasp.

I live in 15 second increments.  Make the coffee. Water the plants.  Back out of the driveway. If I project too far ahead I just see a cliff.  So I don’t look past the next task in front of me.

Over a month ago I had to say my final good-bye to my beloved Bernese mountain dog Atlas.  Afterward people were more supportive than I would have thought.   But I sense the time is here when they expect me to move on.  It was a dog we are talking about after all.  Only I am not ready.  In fact, I strongly suspect this loss has altered me irrevocably.

I have some experience with how loss can change you.  Over twenty years ago I was left at the altar, which by the way is not at all like they would lead you to believe in romantic comedies. Before this, I was a rather stoic person.  Even as a child, I prided myself in my emotional control.  But something broke that December day, and I became a veritable leaky faucet.  I hoped with time I would regain the control over my tears. But alas, I have now accepted the fact that I am officially a crybaby.

I cry in secret now. Part of that has to do with the fact that I am not sure others would understand how or why I am grieving so deeply for a dog.  I never had children of my own.  People might mistakenly assume I saw Atlas as my child.  I did not. He was my dog.  Still I loved him incredibly.There is something so preciously untarnished about the relationship you can have with a dog.  Their love is so pure.  Their acceptance of you is so complete.  My relationship with Atlas was an unshakable safe haven for my sometimes insecure soul.   He kept me connected to the sensory-filled joys of life on earth.  He is no longer there to do that.

I know.  I was lucky to have had something so precious in my life.  But the past tense in that sentence highlights my new reality.  I was so lucky, but I no longer am.  The loss is undeniable.

I realize only part of why I feel I must hide my grief is because Atlas was a dog.  Mostly it is simply because I still feel the loss of his loving presence at times in a desperate how-can-I-possibly-continue panicking way.  Grief is a completely individual experience.  Even those who also loved the one who is gone must travel their own paths.  I realize now this is true whether the loss is a parent, a sibling, or a human friend. The journey is a solitary one, and it is terrifying.

So this is for anyone else who, like me, is feeling utterly alone in deep sadness because a loving relationship that once gave their lives meaning no longer exists.  This is for anyone who wonders how they will pick up the pieces of their shattered hearts and reassemble them into anything that will beat again with even a modicum of happiness. You are not completely alone.  Let’s grieve and cry together for as long as we need to, even if we never meet. Let’s acknowledge we will probably never be the same.  And let’s hope that someday, though I cannot see it yet, someday we can live – truly live-in this new reality with some joy. If it is a fraction of the joy that my relationship with Atlas brought me, I may even consider myself lucky again. Still, it will never change what is lost.

I miss you, Atlas.

Searching for a Handhold

It’s been a month since I said my last good-bye to Atlas, my beloved Bernese mountain dog. And I’m probably not ready for this if my shaking hands, tear-filled eyes and pounding heart are any indication, but I needed to do something. I miss him so incredibly.

I waited over twenty years before I felt ready to get a dog again.  I did my research. I knew the risks; I thought I had accepted them.  And despite knowing about their health problems, I wasn’t wrong about choosing a Berner.  Atlas was the perfect match for me. He was gorgeous – a real “head turner.” We couldn’t take a walk without people stopping us to comment on his striking appearance. While his physical beauty was a daily source of joy for me, my greatest source of joy was Atlas himself: his temperament and his unique personality.

His name was more fitting than I could have ever anticipated. For over eight years he carried my world on his shoulders.  During some of my loneliest and most challenging years, I at least had him. “My love” I called him most of the time.  I don’t mean that in any strange way. I called him that because the love I felt for him was so pure, so free of any doubt or conflict…so unchanging, and I believe, so mutual. I have always been an extremely private person with a somewhat tenuous hold on life. Those in my very small social world know I struggle to stay connected. But Atlas was my anchor.  He gave my life meaning and value and joy in a million ways -small, yet significant.

I am grateful I did not wait for him to be gone to know what I cherished.  Even while he was here I knew my favorite sound in the world was him lapping water from his dish.  I loved the feel and smell of his soft fur, I loved the way he softly sighed when I found just the right spot behind his ears.  I loved that he was always waiting for me at the door- except for those few heart-wrenching times towards the end.  I loved the sound of his nails clicking on the floor.  I loved how his spot to sleep was right by my side of the bed.  Even though our other dog Halley tried to usurp it, Atlas would get it at some point every night- I knew because he always made that loud hrumphing sound when he lay down there.  It filled me with a sense of peace.  No matter what else was happening in my life, everything was all right in my world when Atlas was where he was supposed to be. It was all I truly needed.  I loved that he was the first thing I saw every morning.  I loved that ever since he was a puppy he had this way of lying on his side perfectly still with only his eye tracking my movements or his tail thumping loudly. I loved that he still wanted to play with me – even up until the end.

I’m glad I could be there for him then. I always hoped I would be able to. My two greatest fears were that he would die alone (and in pain) or be hit by a car.  I tried hard to be a thoughtful owner.  And while I have doubts and guilt and questions about whether or not I did the right things along the way, about whether or not I could have gained more time together had I done something differently -I could not have possibly loved him any more – of that I am certain.  Perhaps that was his greatest gift to me.  He proved to me that I was capable of a pure, sustaining love.

I’m struggling to figure out what to do now.  I’m trying to remember that I knew this was inevitable and that I had decided that it was worth the eventual pain.  I know I would not trade a day I had with Atlas, but I’m heart-broken and more than a little bit frightened about my future now that he is gone.  I struggled even with him in my life.  Without him, I fear I will start drowning.  I’m trying to remember how full of life he was.  How he made me appreciate the small, sensory-laden moments that life has to offer.  I’m trying to find the courage to give the love he showed existed inside of me to others around me. He gave it so freely to me. I’m trying to honor his memory- but mostly I just feel the void at this point.

Atlas was a once in a lifetime dog. I am grateful I had something so precious- even if it was only for a while. It was never going to be long enough.